Scaling the rubble of a career crash

February 20, 1994|By Neal Lipschutz

Title: "Career Crash: The New Crisis -- and Who Survives"

Author: Barry Glassner

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

-! Length, price: 223 pages, $21 It must be frustrating not to be a member of the baby boom generation. Media attention is most sharply focused on whatever stage of life boomers are in; problems are analyzed and dissected as if no one ever experienced them before.

It's easy to be flip about baby boomers' self-absorbed desire to wring fulfillment from every aspect of their lives. Certainly other generations have borne greater hardships. But boomers, growing up in a world undergoing major political and social changes, learned to question certainties. With middle age fast approaching (gray hair will soon be chic), boomers face a rapidly changing world of work.

It's no secret to anyone who even occasionally glances at business page headlines that "downsizing" has become a favored corporate term. The economy is showing signs of recovery, but the steady beat of staff cutting has not stopped or even slowed. Often those cuts fall heavily on middle managers, a category that includes many boomers.

Since sociologist Barry Glassner is talking about baby boomers in this slender, thoughtful book about career crashes and their often positive aftermath, it's not as simple as blaming layoffs and then figuring out what to do.

Many baby boomers don't just want a steady paycheck, they want meaning, too. (Perhaps this is a good time to admit I also fit into the baby boom generation born between 1946 and 1964.) We, too, often have tried to build a secular religion from careers. Simply put, we've asked more of work than it has to offer.

Mr. Glassner's profiles are mainly of people who did not abandon established careers in their 30s and 40s because a pink slip arrived. Most of these jumps from the corporate ship were self-initiated. But they were made in a world where employee and employer loyalty is the exception rather than the rule -- and where middle managers in their 40s and 50s face an increasing chance their retirement will come from something other than their current job.

Mr. Glassner pushes to the edge of hyperbole when he writes: "No other generation of managers and professionals has experienced the same degree of job loss and disappointment since the Depression." But he quickly gets down to nuts and bolts, offering short profiles of real people (names are changed to protect the job changers) in a wide variety of financial and family situations who bravely throw off their white collars.

Usually, Mr. Glassner interviews his subjects after they've regained their footing or are in the process (going back to college, for example). Still, he's honest enough to show cutting short a career doesn't always immediately lead to a better situation.

Mr. Glassner frequently takes a psychological approach to ferret out the reasons for the apparent widespread unhappiness among well-to-do baby boomers. Sometimes childhood relationships with parents or childhoods spent in difficult circumstances lead to dissatisfaction with career choices that surface only in one's 30s and 40s.

Career crashes get more complicated when a person is married. Mr. Glassner describes how "serial" crashes take place. One spouse quits to change careers, and a few years later the other spouse decides it's his or her turn. Decisions to quit to pursue a different career almost always mean a temporary loss of income. Sometimes the lower economic status is permanent, though Mr. Glassner doesn't pay too much attention to the money issues in such career switches.

Family relations of all types can be strained, as is reflected in this comment from a 1990s dad angered by his wife's decision to leave a job she was unhappy with several years after he had

done just that: "If I'd wanted a housewife, I wouldn't have married a career woman. If [his wife] wanted a macho provider type, she shouldn't have married me."

Given the generation he's dealing with, Mr. Glassner wisely provides separate and insightful chapters on the special career problems faced by Vietnam veterans and by those who chose careers based on the firmly held leftist political beliefs of their youth. His chapter on the burgeoning career counseling industry, which he divides into two basic types (flat tire vs. fork in the road) shows a good understanding of the area.

Except for throwing out some numbers about how many professionals have and can expect to lose their jobs, Mr. Glassner offers no big- picture insights into the overall problem of the white-collar jobless or the merely dissatisfied. But by clearly and sympathetically telling the stories of real people who had the courage to change what made them miserable, he offers hope and practical, if general, guidance for people contemplating similar changes.

Mr. Lipschutz is a writer who lives in New York.

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